Freedom at the Oscars

March 24, 2001 • Commentary

It’s Oscar time in Hollywood, and this year’s Best Picture nominees range from ancient Rome to the contemporary war on drugs to a Chinese‐​language martial arts film. One of the Best Supporting Actor nominees played his role almost entirely in Spanish. If that represents our increasing access to talent and creativity from all over the world, it’s an illustration of the benefits that globalization brings.

Many of this year’s nominees also involve the theme of individual freedom. That isn’t always true in Hollywood. Movies and moviemakers often seem hostile to individual liberty. Movies disparaging business and celebrating communist rebels have been particularly popular.

But not this year.

Leading the field with 12 nominations – including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor — is “Gladiator,” an old‐​fashioned Roman epic with lots of blood and gore. The underlying theme is republicanism, a Roman idea that inspired the American Founders. Russell Crowe plays a farmer who leaves his home and family to defend Rome on the battlefield, and then is asked by the dying emperor to save the nation from a prospective tyrant. Throughout his travails he wants nothing more than to finish his service to his country, put down the reins of power, and return to his private life. That ideal also motivated George Washington and other Founders, and indeed we find the same theme in a movie that didn’t get many nominations – “The Patriot,” starring Mel Gibson as a South Carolina farmer who reluctantly leaves hearth and home to fight in the American Revolution.

Another movie with libertarian themes is Best Picture nominee “Traffic,” Steven Soderbergh’s depressing take on the drug war. From Washington to middle America to Tijuana, the movie tells us that the government isn’t winning, and can’t win, the war on drugs. It’s government failure in stark relief, with human casualties all around.

A happier, more mystical view of freedom is found in another Best Picture nominee, “Chocolat,” starring Juliette Binoche, nominated for Best Actress. Binoche is an itinerant chocolate maker who drifts into a small French town with the north wind. She sets up a chocolate shop and fills the window with the most beautiful and sinfully delicious candies in movie memory. But for the town’s mayor, “sinful” is the operative word. Browbeating the local priest into going along with him, he declares that people aren’t supposed to have so much fun and forbids the townspeople to enter the chocolaterie. One by one, a few of the villagers – especially those who weren’t doing so well under the old rules – venture into the shop and are transformed by the wicked delicacies. Marriages improve, family splits heal themselves, and women find the self‐​confidence to make their own decisions.

Not every movie about freedom was nominated for Best Picture – though it’s striking that three of them were – but some others picked up acting nominations. Javier Bardem received a Best Actor nomination for “Before Night Falls,” an artistic film based on the memoir of Reinaldo Arenas, a gay Cuban writer who escaped from Castro’s tyranny. Julie Walters won a Best Supporting Actress nod for her scene‐​stealing role as the ballet teacher in “Billy Elliott,” a British film about a boy who wants to escape the failing coal mines and become a dancer. As in the American movie “October Sky,” he has to overcome the opposition of a father who has spent his whole life in the pits and thinks the same life should be good enough for his son.

There are two major disappointments for libertarians in the Academy Award selections. First is the multiple nominations for “Erin Brockovich,” a well‐​made film that should win the Junk Science Award but may well be the academy’s Best Picture, with Julia Roberts a likely pick for Best Actress.

The second disappointment is that the academy overlooked the beautiful and moving “Sunshine,” a sweeping epic of three generations in 20th century Hungary. Ralph Fiennes delivers a tour de force as father, son, and grandson living through the Habsburg Empire, the fascist period, the communist era, and finally emerging into the post‐​communist and hopefully free world. He and the movie were nominated for Golden Globe Awards. It’s a real shame that such a film is going to be ignored on Oscar night.

Still, in a world where movies have often been decidedly anti‐​freedom, this year is a refreshing change. With themes like individualism, social mobility, anti‐​communism, patriotism, and the failure of the drug war on display, Oscar night should be more fun than ever.

About the Author